Update 9/23/2020: I wrote this a while back, but since then a certain author has fully outed herself (See? Pronouns aren’t that difficult, Rowling, you crybaby) as a misogynistic, transphobic asshat. I feel like if I’m going to be talking about her work, I ought to use the space to promote something more useful, so here’s a link to some U.K. groups that help trans kids:
I would encourage you to donate money to them or another trans UK-based charity instead of feeding money to Rowling.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Act Four
Spoilers: Yes, for this book and the Harry Potter series.
Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with the Harry Potter series.
Star Rating: **
Part One: Harry’s Feeling Angsty Again
Well here we are at the end of an epic. I mean, sure, I’ve only been talking about this one book for this series, but Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a weighty thing. At least, it thinks it is. Coming around the final bend of this project, finally having finished the book, I find myself bitter for a reason I wasn’t expecting.
This book could have been fine. Good, even.
Albus and Scorpius have a genuinely charming relationship with one another and I like their banter despite the shoddy dialogue. Scorpius being a confused nerd, and Albus making fun of him for it but also being a bit of a loser makes them both relatable. They can bond over how much their dads don’t understand them, which is such a quintessentially fourteen-year-old sentiment that I can’t help but smile at it.
Draco also works surprisingly well as a part of the main group. He has the distinction in the original series of becoming suddenly much more interesting in the last two books where he was a sniveling brat in all of the others. I like that what little character development we do see in the original series gets addressed here. I don’t like that the book tries to whitewash him of his past crimes and racist conditioning, but the exchanges he has with the original trio now that he’s no longer antagonistic make you long for an alternate telling where he was more fully explored as a character.
There are even a few surprisingly good lines and scenes here and there, like when Draco and Harry talk earnestly about their sons, or when Harry yells at Dumbledore’s portrait, or the end scene where Harry and Albus finally reconcile. Taken on their own and with a little editing, these moments are fairly rich. Harry basically accusing Dumbledore of being a cryptic asshole and outright calling him a bad father figure feels like a necessary part of his character arc, and is a rare culmination in this book that actually works. All of these scenes are still rough and go on for far too long, but you can see the intent behind them.
This section has good in it, and it highlights the better qualities of the book on the whole. I could see a fan of the series appreciating the final scene and viewing the entirety of the play in a positive light because of it, regardless of their thoughts on the rest of Cursed Child. It’s not horrible through and through.
But that doesn’t excuse its problems. And this book has a lot of problems.
In this act, the boys are trapped in the past and devise a scheme to tell their parents where they are. Between the two of them, they figure out how to burn a message in the blanket Harry gave to Albus, knowing he’ll eventually see it. The plan works without a hitch, the characters trap Delphi by disguising Harry as Voldemort, and then Harry and his family decide to watch his parents die.
You’ll notice a few strange aspects to that last sentence. Namely, this odd interplay of the story going out of its way to look dramatic, while creating very little tension overall. All of the time-travel-based events are addressed without any continuity between the past and the present. There’s no sense of urgency to the adults figuring out where Albus and Scorpius are, something the story points out explicitly, as there’s no clear deadline for anything that needs to happen. At the same time, the characters encounter no external obstacles. Albus and Scorpius need a way to communicate with the characters in the future, and they devise a plan within a few lines of dialogue. The ingredients are rare and include a baby blanket they’ll have to steal, but they suddenly obtain everything they need a scene later. Rather than try to work around the difficulty of a plan gone awry, the story allows a rather convoluted series of coincidences to succeed exactly as expected. Delphi threatens Albus about once, but she’s captured quickly and with no lasting consequences for any of the characters.
The upshot of all of this is that the events at the end of the story are all padding. The characters do and learn very little, if anything. The only points of tension at the end of the story are distastefully sappy and both follow a similar theme: Harry has to do something related to his tragic childhood because angst and drama. No one is asking him to dress up as Voldemort or watch his parents die. In both cases, he insists on it so that he can feel sorry for himself, and by extension, make the audience feel sorry for him.
And once you start to pull at the ending, the rest of the story unravels with it like an unfinished sweater.
If the characters aren’t challenged at the end, then they can’t fulfill the development that has been building up. If the characters’ development isn’t fulfilled, then those good moments have no justifiable context. If the story isn’t about character development, then it’s about the time travel plot and stopping the bad guy. But if it’s about those things, again, we have to look back at the ending and ask whether the buildup to the climax is fulfilled.
And it’s just not. There’s no moment or sequence that brings the story together, nor sufficient buildup to pull the audience along for the ride. The play ends up being a series of disconnected scenes with nostalgic references and jokes that it has far more confidence in than it should. The story’s buildup is weak, and the ending can’t even pay off what little it’s built up.
Part Two: Delphi, and How She Ruins the Point of the Story
Delphi is completely unnecessary to this story. If the narrative is about interpersonal drama between a father and son who have to reconcile their differences, Delphi being an antagonist just detracts from the core of it. She might have worked as a character whom Harry and Albus must help reconcile with her own father, but that would require a more or less complete re-write of her function within the plot. As she stands, she comes in at the last minute as a half-assed antagonist and pads out the play for another act and a half.
Not every story needs a bad guy. This story especially doesn’t need one because there’s already tension in the form of Albus’ relationship with his father and the mistake he’s made in going back through time. Delphi should have been cut when this story was being drafted.
I wanted to talk about Delphi because there’s something that really rubs me the wrong way about how this act opens. Hermione steps up to the podium and tells the wizarding world that Voldemort had a daughter. And they all gasp.
At no point does anyone ask, “Well, okay, go on, what’s she like? Is she a criminal? Is she anything like Voldemort, or is she just some person who happens to look a bit like him?” It’s taken as a given that she’s evil. She’s the progeny of the world’s worst wizard, how could she be anything else?
I hate this mentality. I hate the obsession this series has with blood and inheritance and how not only are good people wholly good and bad people wholly bad, but that translates directly to their children as well. If you’re the child of an evil wizard, you have no choice but to be evil. This is some eugenic bullshit. I’d love the idea of blood inheritance and genetically translated personality to be burned out of fiction in its entirety. It’s incurious, lazy, and at its root, sickening.
I get that there are exceptions to the rule, like how Harry is distantly related to Salazar Slytherin and Voldemort, or how Sirius Black’s family is related to the Lestranges, but these exceptions feel pretty weak to me when the emphasis of the story contradicts them. Harry Potter is the tale of a young boy who learns that, through blood and nothing else, he is special, a member of a secret society and destined to stop the bad guy.
The reason Delphi was left in as the villain was because the writers didn’t want either Albus or Harry to be responsible for the bad things they had caused. This is a recurring theme in the Harry Potter series; sometimes good people make mistakes, but those mistakes can’t really be their fault or else they’re no longer good people. They should feel guilty about witnessing tragic events because that’s dramatic, but they can never be personally responsible.
Harry feels guilty about Cedric and everyone else who dies in the series, including his own parents. Albus feels guilty about Craig and the events in the alternate timelines. Scorpius feels guilty about what his alternate self did in the dark timeline. I don’t mind characters responding to these upsetting events negatively and imprinting a sense of responsibility for them. It’s only human to do that when we feel like we could have done better. However, what irks me about these developments is that while the characters aren’t responsible for the things they feel guilty about, they’re all very much responsible for some of the things they don’t.
They aren’t allowed to be guilty about their real mistakes or morally questionable moments. The book — all of the books, actually — try to distract the audience by making characters concerned about things they have no power over, meaning they don’t have to change their behavior to make up for it. Harry uses one of the unforgivable curses, but it’s okay because he’s got serious dad angst about his son. Harry is a slaveowner, but it’s okay because he’s a nice slaveowner and he feels bad when other people mistreat Kreacher. Besides, he’s sad about Sirius dying. Even when it doesn’t outright ignore the heinous things its characters have done, this book is content to re-write them out of existence. See, Lucius Malfoy didn’t really want to be a death eater. That’s why he, completely unprompted, mucked around in wizard Nazi robes and stormed the Quidditch Cup with his buddies, I suppose. And tried to kill Harry. Repeatedly. For fuck’s sake, even Molly Weasley killing Bellatrix Lestrange gets retconned. Like, that was not an insubstantial moment in the series. She said “bitch” and everything. (Unless of course the book intends to imply that Bellatrix’s decades-old corpse is sitting in a cell at Azkaban, which is weird no matter how you put it.)
Good guys are good, bad guys are bad, just deal with it and buy our merch. This sentiment is passable (not good, but passable) in a lighthearted children’s story about wizards going on adventures, but as soon as the series hopes to explore anything deeper than “can the protagonist get the dragon’s gold before the dragon wakes up,” black-and-white morality hinders the story at every step.
Part Three: Non-Player Characters
I think it’s worth taking a moment to step back from the mess that is Cursed Child, especially since my reading is overwhelmingly negative. I can see what this book is trying to be.
As the back cover summary says, Cursed Child wants to tell the story of a famous character beloved in his youth who has now grown up to realize that Happily Ever After isn’t as simple as it’s made out to be. While Albus is the point-of-view character for the first chapter, to call it his story is something of a folly; the name of the book is “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” after all. It’s meant to be an even exploration of both Albus and Harry, with Albus being something of a disappointment because he doesn’t share his father’s skills or interests, and Harry struggling to communicate that his latent disappointment doesn’t replace his love for his son. They’re meant to go on an adventure through time where Albus can visibly see the things his father has gone through, thereby coming to understand him better. Likewise, Albus’ involvement in the adventure forces Harry to realize his own shortcomings as a parent and search for a way to relate to him. In the end, they realize they’re not actually that different after all.
It’s a simple story, perhaps a bit too simple for its intended demographic, but there’s material to work with here. From a conceptual level, I can see where the writers may have intended the story to go. Whether that came first or arose as the story was written, I cannot say; the deeper moments I mentioned feel disconnected from the padding around them. It may well be that the story was initially written as scenes like this to make up the skeleton of the narrative, but the girth of extraneous content around them make me suspect the story was more likely devised as a fun time-travel romp to make bank and then hastily retrofitted with a more cohesive story after test-runs. That may just be me being cynical, though.
Regardless of what the story wants to be, the narrative it tells is far more chaotic and bloated. It is the story of Harry’s relationship with his son, yes, but it’s also the story of Albus’ relationship with Scorpius, Scorpius’ relationship with his own father, the kids’ relationship with the events of the original series, Ron and Hermione’s relationship with each other, Albus and Scorpius trying to save the world from Voldemort’s evil daughter, Harry coming to terms with the death of his parents, and the adults learning how to deal with responsibility. The number of side plots is not an issue; the problem here is that very few of them directly relate to or impact one another.
For instance, while Albus and Scorpius’ time-travel machinations show how Hermione and Ron’s relationship is unstable and knowing this prompts Ron to re-propose to Hermione in the main universe, the narrative function of the time-travel subplot is completely disconnected from the function of the Hermione-Ron love subplot. The first is meant to put the boys in danger, show them how much worse their lives could be, and bring them closer together through adversity. The latter subplot is meant to provide context for Hermione and Ron’s love for one another and show that these two characters may not be perfect together, but their relationship does ultimately work. These two subplots have nothing to do with one another on their most fundamental basis, except for perhaps loosely connecting to the theme of “love is complicated.”
This is a bit of a curious observation given that the main series has a similar theme (“love conquers hatred”), and also has a lot of disparate subplots. I have gripes with the original series, don’t get me wrong, but I think it works better than Cursed Child on this front for two reasons. One, the format of the novel provides more opportunity to explore any given subplot, meaning that although a lot of time is spent on things like S.P.E.W., Hagrid, and other threads that don’t often impact the rest of the story, these still only make up a small portion of the actual story. And two, while the books insist on the audience internalizing the vague theme of “love conquers hatred” (not a bad theme, mind you, but pretty generic), I don’t think this is the core idea most people get from the series.
Regarding that second point, I see Harry Potter much more as wish fulfillment fantasy, with people putting themselves in Harry’s shoes, especially in the first book. The core appeal of Harry Potter is its world, hence the success of immersive approach to the property; people don’t go to Harry Potter Land at Universal wanting to cosplay as Harry or the other characters (at least, most people don’t) — they want to be their own characters, or even just themselves, in the world of these characters.
That’s not to say that people can’t be invested in these characters or their struggles, just that the actual story of Harry Potter has never been it’s strongest suit. It’s a Chosen One narrative about a jock who defeats Wizard Hitler. It’s not a whole lot deeper than that. The characters serve to flesh out the world, especially Hogwarts, the way NPCs in a video game might. You can get invested in their stories, but only as long as those stories don’t impede what you’re reading the series for — its world.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child offers almost nothing new about the magical wizarding world. It’s sense of adventure is based in the past, reliving the glory days of worldbuilding past. If the main appeal of this series is the self-insert fantasy aspect, then it fails the moment it tries to be about Harry’s relationship with his child. It has to detract from the whimsical adventures that make the series fun and focus on these relatively bland characters and their interpersonal issues, with all of the fantasy of the series stripped away. This is why fans make such a fuss about the play script not being descriptive enough — the aesthetic details of various fantastical things are a big part of the books’ appeal. The more repetitive character moments, especially Harry feeling sorry for himself and anything having to do with backstory or blood inheritance, are often the least interesting parts of the original series. This is also why it’s so jarring when the book skips through several years of Albus’ childhood; the audience is here for the minor worldbuilding details like what the Slytherin class schedule is and its dorm dynamics work. It doesn’t matter that these would be completely irrelevant in a different fantasy story — here, they’re essential to the audience’s enjoyment of the series.
I could go on, detailing my response to every line of poorly-placed dialogue that mangles some combination of the theme, plot, and characters, but I would just start to sound like a broken record if I haven’t already. Instead, I wanted to leave this exploration of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with a brief take on the final scene. I mentioned before that this scene is actually decently written as far as this book is concerned. Harry and Albus visit the grave of Cedric Diggory, where they talk about their respective failures in preventing collateral damage and Harry confesses to Albus that although James shares many of his skills, he thinks he has more in common with Albus because their childhoods were both difficult. The dismissal of the Hogwarts kid who died for the sake of a tidy parallel is somewhat distasteful and the scene a bit sentimental, but it offers more nuance than about 95% of the preceding pages. I like this moment, on its own.
However, it’s also a good illustration of how poorly-conceived this story is. The preceding events sour the culmination because of how Harry has acted throughout the book and how, on a metatextual level, it insists on portraying him. Harry confesses that he is afraid of things — the dark, confined spaces, pigeons, and being a good parent. This is the point that got me, because all I could think when I read those lines was, That’s not true, though, is it? Even ignoring the parts of the whole series that seem to contradict Harry’s fear of the dark and confined spaces, or at least make those fears seem minor at best, this isn’t a real confession.
It’s a classic show-don’t-tell scenario; Harry makes these claims in order to connect to his son, but they have nothing to do with what’s been presented. At no point in this series has Harry shown genuine fear for anything. Not even the safety or opinion of his son. He’s shown that he cares about his son, and I think the audience is supposed to extrapolate from his moments of kindness that his later moments of anger or anxiety are related to his concern for his son, but none of his negative actions directly reflect that. Harry never demonstrates that he’s concerned about what Albus thinks of him, nor makes any effort to live up to those standards. His confessions to Ginny about being a bad parent and his attempts to connect to Albus are based around himself. Instead of Harry’s perspective being, “I don’t understand his interests,” Harry’s attitude is, “I don’t understand why he doesn’t like my interests.”
And at no point does Harry realize or acknowledge he’s doing this until this final scene. Not only that, but the book seems to agree with Harry; Albus should care more about Harry’s past. The climax is not the two boys learning to work together or actually addressing their differences. Harry steamrolls any of Albus’ ideas and the climax ends with Harry insisting on watching his own parent’s death again — not because Albus wanted to see it, not because and of the characters have to, but because Harry decides to for no reason. Yes, he respects Albus’ wish to stay and watch with him, but that gesture is clearly for Harry’s benefit and means a lot less when it aligns with Harry’s wishes anyway. Harry never gives in to Albus’ needs because the book thinks Albus is the unreasonable one. Everyone needs to love Harry Potter because he’s the best.
No, no he isn’t. He’s one step short of abusive, and many steps into the realm of petulant manbabies who crave attention at the cost of those around them. This is framed as a positive because Harry Potter is a self-insert Mary Sue around whom the plot of the entire series revolves. There are a lot of flaws in this series that make it weather poorly over time, and while the protagonist isn’t the most egregious, he is one of the most annoying. He had his run, his story made millions, and now it’s time for that story to end. I don’t think it will, but maybe the recent Fantastic Beasts will force this series to reconsider what it’s doing.
If nothing else, I appreciate that Cursed Child has forced me to think more critically about the Harry Potter franchise, even if I don’t come away with a warm feeling about it.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 3
Aesthetics and Style: 2
Overall Plot: 2